SEO, Search Engine Optimization, isn’t dead. In fact, SEO, optimizing your website for the search engines and search in general, continues to be alive and well–and has gotten a lot harder over the past few years. So maybe that’s why we’ve heard so many people declare that SEO is dead. Technical SEO, with all of the technical changes, requirements, updates, and issues like mobile friendliness, responsive design, AMP pages, and page load speed, has become a complex web that is increasingly difficult to navigate.
As someone who has been practicing organic and natural SEO since the mid 1990s, and actually doing the SEO grunt work–then holding various management-type positions in SEO and running an SEO agency for a period of time, I can tell you that you need a really good technical SEO expert to tell you where to spend you efforts and which of these issues matter to your unique business. Which issues you should care about and which you can, essentially, overlook or put off to later. That certainly can come from an SEO Agency or an SEO Consultant. So you ultimately need to decide:
Do I hire an SEO Consultant to navigate these technical SEO waters or an SEO Agency?
Do you need an SEO consultant to help you navigate these technical waters? Or should you hire an SEO agency? Both have their benefits and their drawbacks. I’ll explain the positives and negatives of each, and why you might actually need to hire both.
SEO Consultant Versus SEO Agency
What really is the difference between an SEO consultant and an SEO agency? Typically, the difference between the two is the number of people you work with. When you hire an SEO consultant, you know who you’re dealing with–they’re going to be the one who does the actual work and the consulting. When you hire an SEO agency, you typically deal with a sales person, who is never going to be person who is actually doing the work and the consulting.
SEO Consultant – They’re the one actually doing the work on your account. You first deal with them (perhaps in a sales-type manner) and then you’ll talk directly with them on a regular basis for updates. SEO Consultants tend to have a smaller list of accounts that they deal with, due to time constraints. They may be more expensive, though, especially if you retain them to work on your account on a monthly basis.
SEO Agency – You deal with a salesperson, not the one doing the work on your account. Then, typically you are assigned an account manager (not the person doing the actual work). You’ll typically talk to that person on a weekly or monthly basis, and they’ll interpret, in the best way they can, what’s really happening with your account. In many larger agencies (and in some smaller agencies as well), the person who is actually doing the work rarely talks to you, they’re too busy working on lots of different accounts, fixing and optimizing lots of websites on a daily basis. SEO Agencies tend to have lots of accounts, and they may be cheaper for you in the long run, though.
Let’s look specifically at the positives and negatives of working with an SEO Consultant and working with an SEO Agency.
SEO Consultant Positives
There are certainly positive reasons for hiring an SEO Consultant. Here is a list of the positives that I can think of:
If you are a smaller business, or have a website with a limited number of pages (think less than a few hundred pages), hiring an SEO Consultant might be the way to go. If you have questions or need something changed directly on your website, you know exactly who to call and who is going to do the work.
SEO Consultants rarely outsource the work to others.
You can hire an them to diagnose larger or more complex issues that agencies typically can’t diagnose. SEO Consultants typically have a greater knowledge, and can be more skilled, especially those who are technical SEOs. They’re very hands-on and do the work the work themselves, so they can have more experience to diagnose the real problems or issues when they arise.
SEO Consultants can provide a service for a one-time fee. You don’t have to hire an SEO Consultant on an ongoing basis. Even if you have an internal SEO team, you may want to bring in a consultant to review the current SEO strategy, perform an technical SEO audit of your website, or help with a site redesign.
You can hire a consultant to review your current SEO agency’s work. Are you completely happy with the results that your current SEO agency is providing? Do you think you should be getting more traffic and sales? Hire an expert to review your results, review your SEO agency’s optimization efforts, and even their link strategy.
When SEO Consultants identify an issue, and they’re the ones doing the work, they’ll tell you right away, typically. Then, they’ll give you an option to get the work done right away (because they’ll typically want to do the work for you so they can get paid). Working with one person, the whole process is much more efficient.
SEO Consultants typically won’t make you sign a long-term contract, and an SEO agency will. Consultants want to be efficient and be honest with you, and get the work done. It’s in their best interest to make sure that you know what needs to be done so you can hire them to do the work. They know that if you don’t see results with them, you’ll go hire an agency or another consultant. There’s no excuses. Either they did the work or they didn’t.
SEO Consultant Negatives
Working directly an SEO Consultant has it’s negatives, and there are reasons why you might not want to hire an SEO Consultant. Here are some of the negatives that I can think of:
SEO Consultants typically specialize in a few different areas or parts of search engine marketing and website marketing. For example, they may specialize in SEO audits or Paid Search issues (with more knowledge of paid search issues rather than web server and content issues). If an issue arises, they problem may be with a different part of website marketing that is not their expertise. They may be too quick to want to diagnose your issue and not have the knowledge to refer you to someone else.
One-time fees to hire a real SEO expert can be much more than what you’re going to pay an agency.
SEO Agency Positives
There are certainly positive reasons for hiring an SEO Agency. Here is a list of the positives that I can think of:
It’s cheaper to hire an SEO agency to do monthly ongoing work. You can spread the cost out over several months or the life of an SEO contract.
SEO isn’t the only thing that can affect your website’s traffic and sales. There are a lot of moving parts to be successful, which includes SEO, web design, paid search, social media, content (writers) and web development. If you have a larger website (over 50 pages), are in a competitive industry, or you will need a team of people working together to be successful.
With a larger website or one that is updated on a regular basis, it can be easier for an SEO Agency to handle the work. Content updates, social media updates, paid search management, and even web design and development can typically be handled all in one place, with one agency.
You can have one point of contact at an agency. If there is an issue, you can call your account manager. Some will even give you their cell phone number, and if your website is down or if it gets hacked, the agency can typically handle the issue right away.
Hiring an agency can be better for ongoing maintenance of your website, for regular promotion and optimization. Also, dealing with larger projects like a website migration to a new CMS or updating the web design on the site can be good for an agency to handle. You still might want to get in independent SEO expert consultant involved, or make sure that the agency has someone on staff who can handle it.
Hiring an agency can be a long term relationship. While some employees will come and go (which can be a negative), if you find the right agency to work with, then it can be a good thing. Many agencies have good long term employees, and they’re the ones working on your account. They know your needs, and they know that as long as they’re growing your traffic and sales, they have a job. So, make sure that they know that.
SEO Agency Negatives
Working with an SEO Agency has it’s negatives, and there are reasons why some swear that they will never hire another SEO Agency again. Here are some of the negatives that I can think of:
SEO Agencies, quite often, outsource the work to others.
The people who initially talk to you (like salespeople) are not the ones doing the work.
It can take a lot longer to get results. Agencies typically only do a certain number of hours of work per month. Once they hit that number of hours they’re allotted, the work is put off for another month until the time is available again. Let’s say that there’s an issue that needs to be dealt with right away, as your site is losing traffic every day. You’re losing sales. But something needs to be fixed or optimized on a lot of pages on your site. It might take 10 hour of work to complete. You’re paying the agency for 10 hours of work a month. The employees of the agency will work those 10 hours at the beginning of the month, then put off the rest of the work for a few weeks until the next month. If the fix or optimization takes 30 hours, then it will take 3 months to complete if you have an agency do the work. This is standard operating procedures for agencies. The better agencies will, in fact, identify the issue and let you know how long it will take, giving you an option to get the work done right away or spread it out over a few months. But that’s not always what happens.
SEO Agency employees and agencies in general don’t have an incentive to get your work done right away. If you’re paying them a monthly fee, they can literally stretch out the work over a matter of months and still get the same amount of money. Not so with a consultant.
Agencies hire account managers and salespeople. Account managers, especially lately, typically have one or two years’ experience in the industry. They’re hired right out of college, with a marketing degree. That doesn’t make them an SEO expert. Questions you may have are relayed to someone else, who is the expert. Then there’s a delay. It’s just the way agencies are set up–which just isn’t efficient.
SEO isn’t the only thing that can affect your website’s traffic and sales. There are a lot of moving parts to be successful, which includes SEO, web design, paid search, social media, content (writers) and web development. With agencies, everyone representing all of these moving parts of the equation need to be up to date on what’s going on with your account. If the agency isn’t involving all of these people in their meetings and discussing your needs, then something could be overlooked, which means that you’re not going to get the results you could get.
Agencies hire people right out of college. In many cases these are hourly employees, and it’s their first job right out of college. There are some that do very well–and they quickly move up in the organization. Then there’s those who will get offered more money once they have some experience (a year or two, maybe less) and they will leave the agency for $10,000 more a year in salary. This happens too often, and I know of several agencies that have high turnover rates when it comes to account managers. It’s not their fault that they have a high turnover rate, but is it?
Agencies typically will make you sign a contract for at least 6 months or a year. Why? The honest truth is that they need a few months to perform for you. The first month, the account manager is just getting to know you, and the agency’s SEO experts are analyzing the website, making recommendations that they need to get implemented. Then, the next few months are spent actually making those changes. They can easily drag out that whole process 3 or 4 months. I’ve seen it, and I can say that I’ve done it, and I’ve even instructed my employees to do it. You see, due to the contracts, or the amount that you’re paying the agency per month, we’re only allowed to work on your account for 10 hours per month. Or 20 hours per month, for example. The amount of work needed far exceeds those monthly hours. So, when you’re working for an agency you have no choice but to drag it out. We could alert you, the client, but I can tell you that the last thing you want to hear is that we need more hours and you need to pay us more. In the cases that I’ve done that, it’s never been positive, so agencies won’t tell you, the client. It’s a waste of time.
As you can see, there are several reasons, both positive and negative, why you should hire an SEO Consultant, and why you should hire an SEO agency. As I mentioned, I’ve personally been in both situations, and can see the positives and negatives of each. I’ve been an in-house SEO, an SEO manager, an SEO expert, and even run a digital marketing agency. Whatever you decide, there are a few things that you’ll want to make sure is done:
— Make sure there’s an SEO expert who takes the time to analyze your site and your particular situation. Every website is different, and I almost always recommend that SEO expert (at an agency or as a consultant) does a thorough SEO Audit of your website, typically once a year.
— The SEO audit should include a list of recommendations and issues that need to be fixed, optimized, or addressed. How you deal with those recommendations or list will depend on your engagement with the person doing the SEO audit. Some consultants will help, some won’t. You may need to arrange for someone else to work on what’s found in the SEO audit. An SEO agency should have someone who will work on the issues or multiple people who will implement the recommendations, over the length of your SEO contract.
— There’s room for hiring an SEO Consultant, even if you’ve already hired an SEO agency. They’re typically (hopefully) an expert at what they do, and can work with the SEO agency or your in-house team to make sure that everything is implemented correctly (or they may do the actual SEO audit).
— If you have any questions about your current SEO agency, then hire an SEO Consultant to review everything that they’re doing. Consultants get paid for their time, and typically charge per project or an hourly consulting fee. It’s in their best interest to find issues that the SEO agency isn’t taking care of properly, and any honest SEO agency should be happy to see what the consultant comes up with–they shouldn’t be threatened by an audit of their work. If they are, then maybe they’re not doing the job that they should be doing?
I’ve seen my share of SEO agencies’ work over the years, and in many cases I’ve always been the one who has had to come in and clean up the work (or lack of work) that an agency has been hired to do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to clean up “bad links” or web spam that an SEO agency has done that was a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. I’d rather see a consultant hired to perform an SEO audit and a link audit of a website before it all gets out of hand–and the company’s search engine reputation has been completely ruined by sub-par or cheap SEO agencies.
Remember, you get what you pay for. Especially when it comes to hiring an SEO Agency.